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The first time we formally learned about world religions in 6th grade was essentially the first time I had really consciously considered religious labels. The idea that I was called a Hindu was something I put together in class. I understood the concepts of reincarnation and karma, and could put a name to maybe a dozen gods and goddesses and tell you stories about them, but I had no real conception of more abstract things my teacher mentioned like atman or brahman or dharma.  After class, this girl named Amber asked me, “You don’t actually believe that stuff is real…right?” To which I replied, “Religion?” And she said, “No, the Hindu stuff. The stuff you believe. We only have one life, you know.” And I said, “No, I do not know that, and neither do you.” To which she replied, “I feel sorry for you.”

Fast forward to freshman year of high school: I started to make brown friends at school for the first time (from my high school as well as others in the school district, since we’d have joint events for Key Club). I met a handful of really bubbly Muslim Desi girls (at this point I could use names to help me make assumptions) from another high school and we exchanged names and numbers and hung out a few times after. That was probably the sweetest brown girl interaction I have had to date and I was  happy to know that they existed, even if we did not see each other regularly. Once when we were all at the mall, one of the girls ran into an acquaintance and then came back to report to me, “Doesn’t she have the prettiest eyes?  They’re green.  She is Hindu like you.”  I’m sorry, what? I failed to see the relevance of that tidbit.

It would have bothered me less if she had said South Indian as opposed to North Indian, or Indian as opposed to Pakistani, but where does religious background come in? Why was that the first thought? It is probably as simple as the fact that she primarily defined herself as Muslim.  It was such a harmless comment and I knew that, but  it nagged at me for days because I had this growing awareness that I was defined by a label that meant little to me–a label that was just used to distinguish “me” from “you”. And I didn’t like that. I just wanted brown friends because I never had any before. Here’s the extent to which I was Hindu until recent years: I thought Sanskrit was complex (and I loved a good challenge) and beautiful; I enjoyed prayer because I love routine; I loved singing at the mandir with flocks of aunties and uncles because the way it resonated made me happy deep down; I enjoyed the visual experience of mandir (all the colors and statues and pillars made it like an art museum).  Naturally, I enjoyed the positive energy around hundreds of people who–even for just that one day of the week–were cheerful, friendly, and full of love. For one day of the week, it seemed like hundreds of people got together to celebrate life and living. This was what being Hindu meant to me. All that atman/brahman/dharma stuff came later.

When I came to college I was naively seeking Desi company just to fill this void of being able to share cultural similarities.  I was hoping to find a new batch of bubbly Desi girls.  Apparently, I had no idea what I was going to stumble upon and I have wished many times in the past that I had walked the other way. It is incredibly absurd how hostile post-partition sentiments of our parents’ generation have carried over to our generation and people who have never been to the motherland have overflowing, obnoxious pride. Always needing to display some form of cultural superiority. “Yeah, well…our women are more attractive than yours!”  At 23, I continue to hear similar rhetoric.

Nevertheless, I do not care about the petty, prejudiced banter I have heard over the years.  What I do care about is this: people “knew” I was Hindu before I did, people shot down beliefs that only crystallized as my own when I felt the need to defend them, and non-Hindus seem to have a more concrete sense of what defines a Hindu than any sensible Hindu I know (I know our minds naturally incline towards neat categorizations and everyone does this to some degree, but hold that thought, and prepare for a giant tangent before I tell you about these irritating people).

Ideas like reincarnation and dharma were just two of many miscellaneous things floating in my head for much of my life. They fit with my perception of the way the universe works. Hinduism, as it was fed to me, aligned with principles like evolution.  Thoughts such as these: the idea that energy is neither created nor destroyed, that the universe favors entropy/disorder over time as we know it, that at the  level of our smallest particles I am no different from yeast, and that we are even made of particles (a thought most of us assume more readily in the modern day). How these ideas relate to Hindu thought is a topic for another post, I suppose.

As a junior in college, these were the things that defined my belief system–a combination of modern science and (to me) non-conflicting theories (Hindu, but not limited to just Hindu thought) about the things I do not quite understand otherwise.  I am okay with filling in the gaps for the time being and also okay with the fact that I could be wrong.  Everything-especially knowledge-is more fluid and flexible than many of us want to believe. It is what makes the universe so wondrous to me.  It is why I allow myself the liberty of pondering both religious theories as well as scientific.

Rumi once said that everything in the universe is a pitcher brimming with wisdom. Every thing, every person, every interaction is an opportunity to learn and see something. And it’s just a shame when we learn to be unreceptive to certain things in our world. Colored by biases, not caring to learn more or see more clearly, because we think we already know everything necessary. I know people who were taught and will teach their children to value their holy book above all other sources of knowledge and that everything they need to know in life is in that one book.  More importantly, anything even seemingly contradictory to The Book is wrong. 

The last Dalai Lama, when asked, “What if scientific findings come into conflict with Buddhism?” responded, “Then Buddhism must change.” Unfortunately, not all practitioners of religion have a similar attitude. This is why we still have college graduates who believe that the earth is the center of the universe and all objects orbit around the earth.

Thanks to that bit of a philosophical tangent, I think you now get the gist of who I am, what I believe, and how I think, so let’s get back to my experience of Desi college culture.  At this point in my life, I had embraced my Hindu-Indian identity, had developed coherent validations for just about anything and everything Hindu in nature (whether I believed it or not) so that I would not be at a loss for words as I was in middle school when people scoffed and said stupid things like: “People with elephant heads do not exist–everyone knows that.”  It was NOT about being right. It was about setting the record straight. It was about not allowing someone on the outside of the Hindu sphere to spit on something that they did not understand.  It was about not allowing someone to call my parents, relatives, and ancestors backwards, uncivilized, illiterate, or stupid. However, my carefully considered rationales for various components of Hindu thought proved worthless. We were now sinners for completely different reasons.  Hindus were not just backwards. We were now hedonistic, alcoholic, and immoral, too. Awesome!

Here’s a sampling of how Desi prejudice played out during college:

  • “Of course he drinks. Ismailis are like the Hindus of Islam.”
  • “He started drinking and sleeping around a lot last semester, off acting like those Hindus…going to those Hindu parties and shit.”
  • “Why is she dating a Muslim? There are plenty of decent Sikh and Hindu catches here. And you know none of them will want to date her after this. “

Seriously? It is just nauseating.  Not everyone has such bad experiences, obviously–and some have much worse–but there you have it.  I always had awesome non-Desi friends so I just gave up on forming real relationships (or having legitimate conversations, even) with my fellow Desis in college. And THEN I made awesome Desi friends in graduate school, who now fill some Brown void I think I was always trying to fill in college.  I think the universe hurled them at me because I was visibly losing hope 🙂